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How to keep your mood from falling like the leaves

Many people call fall their favorite season. They revel in the cooler weather, the turning leaves and even the abundant pumpkin spice. But for others, fall isn’t much fun.

As the leaves fall, so does their mood. They have trouble sleeping, find it harder to concentrate or have a shorter temper.

Fall means rising stress levels as school resumes, businesses prepare for year’s end and the holidays loom. Less natural daylight can affect hormones. Even the fall allergy season can affect mood.

BJC can help. Whether this is your grumpiest time of the year or you’re a fall fanatic, we share some of the possible reasons behind bad moods, how to avoid or prevent them, and signs that a bad mood might mean it’s time to see your doctor.

In a bad mood? Maybe blame ragweed

Seasonal allergies are well known for bringing on runny noses, watery eyes and congestion. But allergy sufferers might be surprised to find that pollen, mold or dust can be the cause of their low mood and energy levels.

An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system encounters a substance, or “allergen,” that is normally harmless and overacts to it. Part of the immune response to allergens includes the body releasing proteins called cytokines.

Cytokines cause inflammation resulting in allergy symptoms throughout the body. Not only can the inflammation cause lethargy and fatigue and even trigger depression in some people, but some research also indicates that cytokines can act directly on the brain to cause low energy and bad moods, according to the National Institutes of Health.

On top of that, typical seasonal allergy symptoms, including congestion, coughing and runny nose, can interfere with sleep, making it more difficult to get beneficial rest.

Here are some quick tips that can help treat the allergy symptoms — and may also relieve the bad mood:

  • Be aware of what’s triggering seasonal allergy symptoms and avoid it. Flower, tree and weed pollens are responsible for most spring allergies. Grass pollen tends to occur during summer. Ragweed is the biggest culprit in the fall.

  • Rinse your sinuses morning and night with a neti pot or a bottle of salt water to clear out allergens and open sinus passages.

  • Try an over-the-counter oral antihistamine. There are several antihistamines that provide safe and effective seasonal allergy relief. You may have to try a few different brands or formulations to find the one that works best for you.

  • Try an over-the-counter steroid nasal spray. People often find them as or more effective than oral antihistamines, without the drowsiness often caused by oral medication.

  • If none of these solutions help, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can assess whether you need a prescription allergy medication or if your moodiness and low energy have another cause.

'Fall back' into a restful night’s sleep to be at your best

A good night’s sleep is essential to putting your best self forward. But fall can be the time when factors that can cause sleeping problems — including less daylight, increased screen time, not enough exercise and the switch back to Standard Time — intensify.

As the days get shorter in the fall and winter months, lack of sunlight can affect our sleep by causing us to produce more melatonin, the hormone that cues our bodies that it is time to sleep. Shorter days and more melatonin production can result in people getting sleepier earlier in the evening.

However, some people find that earlier darkness means spending more time inside and on electronic devices than in the spring and summer months. Research shows that increased screen time can make it harder to fall asleep.

The blue light emitted by computer screens, phones and LED light bulbs has been thought to disrupt the body’s melatonin production, causing wakefulness. But, according to the National Institutes of Health, exposure to electronic devices and blue light may not be the only issue affecting sleep. Exposure to stimulating content while engaging with electronic devices may be powering up our brains prior to bedtime. Better to put away our electronic devices for at least 30 minutes and plan relaxing time “powering down our brains" in preparation for bedtime.

“Most people are sleep-deprived,” says Oscar Schwartz, MD, BJC Medical Group sleep disorder specialist and medical director of the Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital Sleep Disorders/EEG Center. “People delay going to bed and try to fit everything possible into their day — and the last thing they acknowledge is that they have to sleep.”

And, while most people experience fewer problems with the fall time change than when “springing forward” in March, any change to your normal sleep routine can be disruptive, says Dr. Schwartz.

“The circadian cycle is 24 hours, and any disruption to the timing can affect when you feel sleepy or alert,” he says. “With the fall time change, you may wake up early and not be able to go back to sleep, and you may feel sleepy earlier in the evening.

“If your sleep cycle isn’t good to begin with, this change may be even more painful,” Dr. Schwartz adds. “Millions of Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, and untreated sleep disorders, as well as chronic sleep deprivation, make circadian shifts more problematic.”

Sleep disorders affect about 40 million Americans, but only 5% are diagnosed and treated. Sleep disorders include narcolepsy, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, as well as sleep behaviors like sleep walking, talking, eating or acting out one’s dreams (REM Behavior Disorder).

Inadequate sleep is associated with memory decline, difficulty in concentration, decreases in mental and physical performance, mood swings, irritability, depression, stress, high blood pressure, weight gain and automobile accidents. It’s also associated with a host of other health problems, including heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

For a better night’s sleep, consider the following tips:

  • Seven to nine hours of sleep a day is considered normal, although the hours don’t have to be consecutive. If you make up sleep with a nap, make sure you nap before 3 p.m. and limit it to an hour.

  • Setting a regular bedtime and wakeup time is helpful.

  • Sleep disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome include warning signs, such as loud snoring; stopping breathing or gasping for breath during sleep; feeling sleepy or dozing off while engaging in daily activities; difficulty sleeping three nights a week or more; unpleasant tingling, creeping feelings or nervousness; and the urge to move your legs when trying to sleep. If you experience these issues, consider a sleep study.

  • If you work nights, improve sleep quality during the day by using earplugs and blackout drapes.

  • Caffeine works well for short periods, but it shouldn’t be consumed in such amounts that it disturbs one’s ability to sleep.

  • Alcohol intake can have stimulating effects and can affect your sleep quality, as well as your ability to fall and stay asleep.

  • Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat right before bed. Your lightest meal should be the meal closest to bedtime.

  • Complete exercise by 6 p.m. for a 10 p.m. bedtime.

  • Limit screen time or other electronic device use prior to bedtime. Exposure to light, such as use of electronics and watching television, can affect your sleep.

  • Over-the-counter sleep aids can be more problematic than helpful because of possible side effects, such as grogginess the next day.

  • Pets have a habit of waking us up throughout the night, so have them sleep in their own beds.

Learn more about the services available across BJC for those suffering from sleep disorders:

Alton Memorial Hospital

Barnes-Jewish Hospital

Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital

Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital

Christian Hospital

Memorial Hospital

Missouri Baptist Sullivan Hospital

Parkland Health Center

St. Louis Children's Hospital

When is a bad mood a sign to get help?

Everyone has bad moods occasionally. Most of them pass in a few hours or a few days. But sometimes, they don’t.

If you've ruled out allergies, sleep issues and other obvious causes of your low mood, it might be a sign you that should see your doctor or contact a mental health professional, says BJC EAP clinical manager Cynthia Hovis, MSW, LCSW. She shared some signs to watch for:

  • You’re finding it difficult to concentrate. Having a hard time focusing on a task or reading an article or book are common indicators of people dealing with anxiety or depression.

  • Nothing excites you. Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, or in life in general, may be a sign you should reach out and speak to a professional.

  • You keep getting ill. Emotional distress and stress can turn up as a wide range of physical ailments, from chronic stomach issues to frequent colds, headache and pain. See your health care provider to look for physical causes, first. If they can’t find any, ask them to recommend a mental health professional for you.

  • You’re abusing substances to cope. Abusing drugs or alcohol, or even eating too much or too little, may be a red flag. Using these crutches to cope with poor mental health may numb you in the present, but it may be time to reach out for help, Hovis says.

Stress levels in the U.S. have climbed so high that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, has said there is a “mental health crisis” in the country, especially among young people and the elderly. Hovis says getting professional help can get your mental health on track.

“If you are feeling overwhelmed,” says Hovis, “it’s better to be cautious and reach out for tools and support. “

Read more about taking care of your and your family’s mental health on the BJC EAP blog.

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